By Philip Staffelli-Suel
Welcome back Junior Curators! This is the start of a series exploring how one individual in Tennessee’s past became the first of many things. Together we will learn about how one person can change the course of history.
Everyday something is happening in the world. It can be hard for people to keep up with current events. How do we get news today? The internet, radio, television, and…newspapers. Before there were many platforms of communication, newspapers were the only way to get the news. Today, we are going to learn about a famous journalist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Have you heard of her? If you haven’t check out our other blog to learn more. Wells-Barnett was an early activist for African American civil rights, women’s suffrage, and the fight against lynchings. She often wrote about the struggles of African Americans living in the South.
Image is of Ida B Wells-Barnett, Library of Congress
One of Ida’s earliest memories was of reading a newspaper to her father and a group of his friends. She always enjoyed reading the paper. Her first experience working for a newspaper was in 1885. At the age of 23, she became the editor of the Evening Star, a newspaper published by a Memphis literary group. Under her leadership, the paper became very popular in the Black community. People would come to church just to hear her read it. She was soon approached by Reverend Countee, a Baptist minister in Memphis who ran a weekly publication called the Living Way. Countee asked Wells-Barnett to write a weekly column for the paper. He couldn’t pay her, but the opportunity would give her a larger audience and the ability to write about her interests. In her new role, she became one of the only women at the time to write on race relations. She was one of only about fifteen Black female journalists.
Over the next few years, Wells-Barnett continued to write for newspapers such as the New York Age, Detroit Plaindealer, the Indianapolis World, the Chattanooga Justice, and the Gate City Press. In 1887, she was invited to write for the Free Speech and Highlight. This Black-owned newspaper in Memphis had a large following. Wells-Barnett saw this opportunity as a way to grow her reading audience. She accepted the invitation under one condition: she would become the editor and part owner. She purchased one third interest in the paper becoming one of the country’s few black female newspaper owners and editors. One of her first acts was shortening the paper’s name to Free Speech. With her new platform, she began to call out racial injustice anywhere she saw it, especially in Jim Crow laws. One of her articles which criticized segregation in Memphis schools resulted in her being fired from teaching.
In 1892, one of her close friends, Tommy Moss, was lynched. The death of her friend changed her life forever. A few days after the murder, Wells-Barnett published an article calling for African Americans in Memphis to “[s]ave our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” Soon large numbers of African Americans were leaving Memphis and those who stayed refused to work for white families or businesses.
After the death of her friend, Ida continued to research and write on lynching throughout the South. She gathered facts and investigated individual cases to learn about the people involved. One of her articles angered white southerners when she stated that white women might fall in love with black men. Led by Edward Carmack, future Tennessee U.S. Senator, white people throughout Memphis called for her death. A mob broke into Wells-Barnett’s office and destroyed Free Speech’s printing press and furniture. Only because she was out of town, was her life spared. With her life in danger, she stayed in New York City and took a job working for the New York Age. She became one-fourth owner of the paper and wrote a weekly column.
While in New York City, she continued to investigate lynching throughout the South. Her writings at the Age caught the eye of Fedrick Douglas. Douglas encouraged Wells-Barnett to continue her writing. This encouragement led her to write Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. She was unable to find a publisher so two hundred and fifty women held a fundraiser for her on October 5, 1892. After the publication of her pamphlet, she became extremely popular. She began a speaking tour throughout the north on the issue of lynching. On this tour she met Catherine Impey, an English woman.
After returning to England, Mrs. Impey organized a group known as the Society for the Brotherhood of Man. The society requested that either Mrs. Wells or Mr. Douglas visit Britain to speak about lynching. Douglas told Wells-Barnett to go. She became one of the first African American women to speak in Great Britain. Her lectures drew large crowds. Upon returning to the United States, she continued writing and even published another book on lynching called A Red Record. Wells was soon invited back to England, but this time she wrote about her adventures for The Conservator and a white-owned newspaper known as the Inter-Ocean. This made Ida B. Wells one of the first black foreign correspondents for an American newspaper.
In 1895, she married Ferdinand Lee Barnett, the owner of The Conservator. Ida refused to give up her birth name, becoming one of the first women to hyphenate her name. After their marriage, Wells-Barnett purchased her husband’s newspaper, therefore, she was the publisher, editor, and manager for the paper. After the birth of their second child in 1897, Wells-Barnett retired from the newspaper. However, her story does not end there.
Stayed tuned to our Junior Curator blogs for part II of Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s trailblazing life.
Journalist - a person who investigates or writes about current events.
Civil Rights - freedoms protected with laws.
Suffrage - the ability to vote in public elections.
Lynching – the murder of an individual, usually by a mob.
Editor - a person who oversees and determines the final content of a text, particularly a newspaper or magazine.
Jim Crow Laws - These were state and local laws that were meant to oppress Black Americans. This included segregation, grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and many more laws.
Segregation - To set apart or divide groups of people. Example: segregating people based on the color of their skin.
Why do you think Ida B. Wells-Barnett would want to keep her last name?
If Ida B. Wells was 23 in 1885, what year was she born? What was still legal in the United States at that time?
Why would Ida B. Wells-Barnett go to England to talk about something going on in the United States?
Watch this short video about Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
Tennessee State Standards
5.44 Explain the development and efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau in helping former slaves begin a new life, including Fisk University.
5.45 Identify how the rise of vigilante justice (e.g., Ku Klux Klan), black codes, and Jim Crow laws impacted Tennessee and the nation.
8.72 Explain the restrictions placed on the rights and opportunities of freedmen, including: racial segregation, black codes, and the efforts of the Freedmen's Bureau to address the problems confronting newly freed slaves.
Fradin, Dennis and Fradin, Judith. Ida B. Wells: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. New York. Clarion Books. 2000.
The University of Tennessee at Knoxville. “Ida B. Wells.” Accessed October 13, 2022. https://jem.utk.edu/tn-newspaper-hall-of-fame/ida-b-wells.